Country Matters: Post office? It's next to the potatoes

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The Independent Online
THE post office in our Suffolk village shop is open only in the mornings now. Its licence to sell stamps and to dispense pensions all day has been revoked. If you want to post a parcel after 1pm, you can either drive it three miles to Woodbridge or, if you haven't got a car and can't scrounge a lift, you can forget about it until tomorrow, which is also the time when the next bus will run.

If you do drive to Woodbridge, you won't be able to post your parcel at the main office in Cumberland Street because the main office in Cumberland Street has been closed. The biggest post office in the main market town serving a couple of dozen villages in this area is now to be found, not on the main street where it has been since Edward Fitzgerald was translating the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Woodbridge, but in a corner of Budgens supermarket in the Turban shopping development by the municipal car park.

If you don't fancy the idea of pushing your way through the scrum of shoppers around the vegetable displays to get your parcel weighed, stamped and dispatched, you might think of driving it a further 10 miles to Ipswich, our county town, where the main post office, a Corinthian horror described by Pevsner as 'no ornament', has stood on the Cornhill for a century.

Don't bother. Signs hanging in the windows of the Cornhill building say that it has been 'acquired for clients' by estate agents: it will soon become a banking hall for the TSB. 'The post office has been stolen and the mailbox is locked,' as Dylan said. Guess where it has gone? To the Tower Ramparts shopping centre, an imitation American mall (pronounced with the same sound as 'appalling'), exactly like the other one we already have in Ipswich and exactly like the third that we are being promised.

The closure of the Woodbridge post office and its move to Budgens has outraged more people round here than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania. A petition - that invariable hallmark of the politically clueless - was got up. Letters were written to the local paper and to John Gummer, our MP. All for naught, as these nugatory flappings always are.

The Post Office issued emollient 'customer care' statements, telling us that it was being done for our own good and we would hardly notice the difference. They did not tell us that the deal would reduce the post office to the position of a franchised hamburger stall and that they were planning to flog the beautiful old building.

As soon as the post office opened in Budgens, we noticed that all the old staff had gone. They had been laid off. The counters were being staffed with new people who, it turned out, were all employees of the supermarket.

Word then got around that the Post Office wasn't paying rent to Budgens for its space in the store, as we had naively supposed. Cash was flowing in the opposite direction: Budgens had acquired the right, under licence, to operate the post office, remitting a share of the profits for the privilege. The manager has confirmed the truth of this to me.

Why should Budgens want a post office in the corner of the shop? Because every customer for the post office has to exit from the shop through the tills and every other hapless recipient of Family Credit or a pension will, undoubtedly, pick up some purchases on their way out and deposit a proportion of their cash in those same tills. The arrangement is lovely for everybody, especially for our local Budgens. I know people who hate the Woodbridge Budgens so much they will go 10 miles out of their way to shop somewhere else.

They will now have to travel the same distance to buy a stamp. The deal is thrice lovely for the Post Office because it collects its remittance without the trouble of employing people or maintaining premises; and, meanwhile, it has cleared the way to sell the old post office building, which Pevsner did admire.

Suspecting that this was their plan, I spoke last week on the telephone to a man in the property section of Post Office Counters in St Albans. He said that 'there is a strong possibility that (the old post office) will be on the market very shortly,' and if I was interested he would give my name to the agents who would be appointed to sell


In how many more country towns is this story being repeated?

I have heard similar tales from Godalming in Surrey, Worle in Avon and Harleston in Norfolk. Is it happening round you? All over Britain, post offices have been situated for a century in prime high street locations. Their asset value must, even in the present depressed property market, be in tens or even hundreds of millions. How did Post Office Counters acquire the right or title to flog off those buildings? Who will get the proceeds of the sales? How can a national asset in public ownership be purloined into a swagbag in this fashion without it being noticed or resisted?

When they happen, big changes in country life happen quickly; and, like as not, they go unremarked in the wider society.

Nobody much noticed, for instance, the transformation in agricultural labour that occurred in the Eighties. Everyone was looking down the mines into the unreconstructed face of British Stalinism or up the delivery ramps into Murdoch's Wapping plant while the protective terms and conditions of agricultural labour that had taken two centuries to establish were broken, busted and eliminated in about five years.

Fewer than one in five of the workers employed on farms round here 10 years ago is still in steady work. None of them has a guaranteed job. Most of the little manual labour which remains to be done on the land is subcontracted to agencies that hire casual, non-unionised labour by the day. The worker doesn't spit on his hand and slap the ganger's palm to signify a bargain, but, forgetting that ritual, farm workers are back where they were before Tom Paine and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

The change in our postal service, which is now well advanced, may not be so shattering as the agricultural revolution of the Eighties, but it is comprehensive and permanent all the same. It also marks another irreversible moment in the life of the country and in country life when the family silver went into hock and the quality of the services on which we depend was reduced. Why isn't a political storm being kicked up about this?